Re-thinking “Open-Door Imperialism”

Nicole M. Phelps
University of Vermont

Review of Marc-William Palen. The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 331 pp. $99.99 (hardcover).

[For full review and citation, see: Nicole M. Phelps, “Re-thinking ‘Open-Door Imperialism,'” Diplomatic History 41 (Jan. 2017): 211-214.]

conspiracy of free trade coverStill basing your Gilded Age foreign policy lecture—perhaps reduced now to just a PowerPoint slide—on the quest for markets a la William Appleman Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy and Walter LaFeber’s The New Empire?1 Marc-William Palen convincingly argues that it is time for a change. According to Palen, lumping all the Gilded Age administrations from Grant to McKinley into proponents of an undifferentiated “Open Door imperialism” misses essential differences between the Democratic Grover Cleveland administrations and those of the Republicans and, more importantly, falsely paints free traders as imperialists and obscures the protectionist, closed door bent of the actual imperialists. By focusing our attention on the debate over tariffs waged by Cobdenite free traders and Listian economic nationalists—protectionists—from the early days of the Republican Party through McKinley’s election in 1896, Palen offers important contributions to our understanding of imperialism, the development of American political parties, and Anglo-American relations. In so doing, he smooths out the story of nineteenth-century U.S. foreign policy, which often skips abruptly from the end of the Civil War to the start of the Spanish-American War. Continue reading “Re-thinking “Open-Door Imperialism””

Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue in a Doomed World

Review of Taras Grescoe, Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue in a Doomed World (St. Martin’s Press, June 2016; HarperCollins Canada, May 2016).

Nigel Collett
Cross-posted from Asian Review of Books

Shanghai GrandOf all human societies of which we have knowledge, Shanghai in the late 1930s perhaps comes closest to the sci-fi dystopias beloved of Hollywood, societies in which the gilded, sophisticated inhabitants of a fabulous city live surrounded but cut off from wasted badlands, served by an abject underclass living as far from the light of day as it does from the consciousness of its masters. For inside the self-policed boundaries of Shanghai’s International Settlement and its French Concession lay both one of the greatest concentrations of wealth on the face of the planet and some of the most sordid scenes of human misery.

The taipans of British, American, French, Japanese and other stock who controlled and owned the wealth of Shanghai lived hedonistic lives of truly decadent luxury. For the wealthy, life was sweet, as Noël Coward, who passed through in 1930 and wrote Private Lives while laid up with influenza in a suite in the Cathay Hotel, remembered. “I entered the social whirl of Shanghai with zest,” he wrote. Continue reading “Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue in a Doomed World”

Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid in the Twentieth Century

Review of Johannes Paulmann (ed.) Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid in the Twentieth Century. London: Oxford University Press, 2016. 460 pp. £75 (hardback), ISBN: 9780198778974

Ben Holmes
History Department, University of Exeter

Dilemmas HumanitarianismDilemmas of Humanitarian Aid in the Twentieth Century (2016), edited by Johannes Paulmann (Director of the Leibniz Institute of European History and Professor of Modern History at the University of Mainz), exemplifies the burgeoning field of the history of humanitarianism. In providing historical context to a sector that is often stuck in the ‘perpetual present’, the volume shares a common purpose with a fast-growing body of literature.[1] Specifically, the volume examines 150 years of history to demonstrate that the technical and ethical crises central to modern humanitarianism – such as competition between aid organisations, the tendency of aid to ‘do more harm than good’, and the manipulation of aid by political actors – are not unique to the twenty first century. They have, in fact, ‘been inherent in humanitarian practice for more than a century’ [3].[2] Continue reading “Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid in the Twentieth Century”

Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America


Adam Nadeau
University of New Brunswick

Review of Jonathan Eacott, Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600–1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. $45.00 (Cloth).

JacketJonathan Eacott’s Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600– 1830 (2016) reinforces two important historiographical points. One is that, contrary to David Armitage’s insistence that ‘the emergence of the concept of the “British Empire” . . . was long drawn out, and only achieved by the late seventeenth century at the earliest’,[1] the English polity that later incorporated the kingdoms of Scotland and Ireland was consciously imperial as early as the late sixteenth century. The second is that Britain’s imperial efforts were, from the start, transoceanic in nature. On the latter point, Selling Empire breaks with the older historiographical trend of distinguishing between a ‘first’ and ‘second’ British Empire delineated by a late eighteenth-century ‘swing to the east’.[2] Instead, Eacott asks readers to consider ‘America the India’ as well as ‘India the place’, for it was the idea of India that ‘fostered, propelled, and supported English and British imperial expansion and power in America’ (1–3). Rather than ‘separate “worlds” of empire’, Eacott sees ‘the British empire in the world’ (7), an important shift in perspective that, along with other recent studies of the peripheries of Britain’s American empire,[3] will continue to push scholars of early modern British imperialism nearer towards contemporary interdisciplinary debates surrounding notions of indigeneity and the legacies of settler colonialism.[4] Continue reading “Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America”

Richard Toye Reviews Blair Inc: The Man Behind the Mask for the Guardian

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Richard Toye
History Department, University of Exeter

Follow on Twitter @RichardToye

Cross-Posted from the Guardian

During the early stages of the recent election campaign, Tony Blair emerged to deliver a speech in support of the Labour party’s European policy and to declare that he was backing Ed Miliband “100%”. The decision to make use of his predecessor in this way cannot have been easy for Miliband, as Blair remains potentially toxic, not least to many in the party itself, but doubtless he could not risk offering a rebuff. Blair’s motivation remains more obscure: previously he had done little to conceal his dislike of Miliband’s political approach, and he probably feels more than a little vindicated by Labour’s defeat. Certainly, a lot of people would reject with a laugh the idea that he said what he did because he genuinely believed it. Continue reading “Richard Toye Reviews Blair Inc: The Man Behind the Mask for the Guardian”

What We’ve Learned From the Crash – Review of ‘The Shifts and the Shocks’, by Martin Wolf

Richard Toye
History Department, University of Exeter

Follow on Twitter @RichardToye

Cross-posted from the Guardian

shifts_758504zMartin Wolf’s new volume on the causes and consequences of the world financial crisis comes with generous advance praise from, among others, Mervyn King, Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke. That, you might think, is a bit like a manual on maritime safety with jacket blurbs from the crew of the Titanic. But there is not much comfort for the these men within the book’s pages. Bernanke, in particular, gets it in the neck: “even two months before the crisis broke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve had next to no idea what was about to hit him, his institution and the global economy. To be blunt, he was almost clueless.” It seems he’s not too careful about reading the books he endorses, either.

That is a pity, because this is a work that repays close attention. Continue reading “What We’ve Learned From the Crash – Review of ‘The Shifts and the Shocks’, by Martin Wolf”

Exchanging Notes: Colonialism and Medicine in India and South Africa

Image courtesy of Wellcome Trust.
Image courtesy of Wellcome Trust.

Nandini Chatterjee
History Department, University of Exeter

Review of Poonam Bala ed. Medicine and Colonialism: Historical Perspectives in India and South AfricaLondon: Pickering and Chatto, 2014. Empires in Perspective Series. 240 pp. £60 (hardback) ISBN 13: 9781848934658; £24 (e-book) 9781781440872.

medicine and colonialism bookThe recent surge of interest in imperial history has been cross-fertilised by work on a number of other themes, such as knowledge formation, law and governance and trans-national connections. This collected volume of essays very usefully brings together a number of these trends to bear upon the crucial area of colonial medicine. Self-consciously aiming to be a comparative work and taking material from India and South Africa, it takes its cue from earlier works that aimed to ‘de-centre’ the metropolis-periphery model of conceptualising empire and colonialism.[1] While re-asserting the centrality of medical knowledge and practices to colonial rule, and the importance of the bodies of the colonised as sites for the exercise of colonial power, the book aims to move beyond a model of hegemony, domination and control. Instead, as the introductory essay outlines, the book’s trans-national methodology is intended to highlight ‘policies of European adaptation and resistance to initiatives of the colonized’ and the ‘transfer of ideas and knowledge in mutual engagements.’

Continue reading “Exchanging Notes: Colonialism and Medicine in India and South Africa”

How the Antarctic Reframes the Context of Class and Empire

Shackleton Expedition, Antarctica, 1915. Photo: REX
Shackleton Expedition, Antarctica, 1915. Photo: REX

Richard Batten
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @Richard_Batten

Review of Ben Maddison. Class and Colonialism in Antarctic Exploration, 1750-1920. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014. xii + 247pp. £60 (hardback), ISBN 978-1848934184. ‘Empires in Perspective’ Series.

class and colonialismThe histories of Antarctic exploration have generally tended to focus on the narratives of intrepid explorers such as Ernest Shackleton and Robert F. Scott, who led expeditions of endurance to the arduous polar wilderness of Antarctica. In the view of Ben Maddison, this concentration on the heroism of the Antarctic explorers, who he defines as the Antarctic elite or the ‘masters’, was an understandable consequence of how historians had approached ‘Antarctic history almost exclusively from the rhetoric and records of the masters’ [79]. In Class and Colonialism in Antarctic Exploration, 1750-1920 (2014), Maddison suggests that historians have, unintentionally, strengthened the invisibility of the Antarctic working class because they have been hesitant to engage critically with the voices from below on these expeditions.

Indeed, Maddison argues that it was the ‘gentrification’ of Antarctic exploration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that further contributed to the silencing of the working class. This despite the fact that the expeditions to Antarctica were ‘facilitated by multifarious labours of the working class’ [6]. Consequently, Maddison claims to fill this historical vacuum by providing a substantial new interpretation of the history of Antarctic expeditions. Continue reading “How the Antarctic Reframes the Context of Class and Empire”

Empires in Perspective: Baudin, Napoleon and the Exploration of Australia


Rachel Chin 
History Department, University of Exeter

Nicole Starbuck. Baudin, Napoleon and the Exploration of Australia. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013. 208 pp. £60 (hardback), ISBN 978 1 84893 210 4; £24 (eBook), ISBN 978 1 84893 210 4.

Baudin_FrontAs the blade of the guillotine slowed in the aftermath of the Terror, Napoleon took up the reigns as First Consul and French explorer Nicolas Baudin proposed an ambitious voyage to “interest the whole of Europe” [12]. It is also where Nicole Starbuck begins Baudin, Napoleon and the Exploration of Australia (2013). A commoner by birth, Baudin made his name as a member of the French merchant marine and French East India Company, eventually captaining a scientific voyage to the Caribbean. However, his 1802 Australian voyage was unique in its narrow scope of exploration, and its unprecedented twenty-two participating naturalists and scientists. This voyage was the first to emphasize specialized knowledge acquisition and scientific detail, a shift from earlier Enlightenment explorations, when natural history was seen as “a sweeping and largely philosophical study of the natural environment…implicated in questions about rationality” [15]. Continue reading “Empires in Perspective: Baudin, Napoleon and the Exploration of Australia”